Dignity of the Priest: Part I

St. Alphonsus Liguori

Idea of the Priestly Dignity

In his epistle to the Christians of Smyrna, St. Ignatius, Martyr, says that the priesthood is the most sublime of all created dignities: "The apex of dignities is the priesthood." St. Ephrem calls it an infinite dignity: "The priesthood is an astounding miracle, great, immense, and infinite." St. John Chrysostom says that, though its functions are performed on earth, the priesthood should be numbered among the things of heaven. According to Cassian, the priest of God is exalted above all earthly sovereignties, and above all celestial heights—he is inferior only to God. Innocent III, says that the priest is placed between God and man; inferior to God, but superior to man.

St. Denis calls the priest a divine man. Hence he has called the priesthood a divine dignity. In fine, St. Ephrem says that the gift of the sacerdotal dignity surpasses all understanding. For us, it is enough to know, that Jesus Christ has said that we should treat his priests as we would his own person: “He that heareth you heareth me; he that despiseth you despiseth me.” Hence St. John Chrysostom says that "he who honours a priest, honours Christ, and he who insults a priest, insults Christ." Through respect for the sacerdotal dignity, St. Mary of Oignies used to kiss the ground on which a priest had walked.

Importance of the Priestly Office

The dignity of the priest is estimated from the exalted nature of his offices. Priests are chosen by God to manage on earth all his concerns and interests. "Divine," says St. Cyril of Alexandria, "are the offices confided to priests." St. Ambrose has called the priestly office a divine profession. A priest is a minister destined by God to be a public ambassador of the whole Church, to honour him, and to obtain his graces for all the faithful. The entire Church cannot give to God as much honour, nor obtain so many graces, as a single priest by celebrating a single Mass; for the greatest honour that the whole Church without priests could give to God would consist in offering to him in sacrifice, the lives of all men. But of what value are the lives of all men compared with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which is a sacrifice of infinite value? What are all men before God but a little dust? As a drop of a bucket... as a little dust. They are but a mere nothing in his sight: All nations are before him as if they had no being at all. Thus, by the celebration of a single Mass, in which he offers Jesus Christ in sacrifice, a priest gives greater honour to the Lord, than if all men by dying for God offered to him the sacrifice of their lives. By a single Mass, he gives greater honour to God than all the angels and saints, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, have given or shall give to him; for their worship cannot be of infinite value, like that which the priest celebrating on the altar offers to God.

Moreover, in the holy Mass, the priest offers to God an adequate thanksgiving for all the graces bestowed even on the Blessed in Paradise; but such a thanksgiving all the saints together are incapable of offering to Him. Hence it is that on this account also the priestly dignity is superior even to all celestial dignities. Besides, the priest, says St. John Chrysostom, is an ambassador of the whole world, to intercede with God and to obtain graces for all creatures. The priest, according to St. Ephrem, "treats familiarly with God." To priests every door is open.

Jesus has died to institute the priesthood. It was not necessary for the Redeemer to die in order to save the world. A drop of his blood, a single tear, or prayer, was sufficient to procure salvation for all; for such a prayer, being of infinite value, should be sufficient to save not one but a thousand worlds. But to institute the priesthood, the death of Jesus Christ has been necessary. Had he not died, where should we find the victim that the priests of the New Law now offer, a victim altogether holy and immaculate, capable of giving to God an honour worthy of God? As has been already said, all the lives of men and angels are not capable of giving to God an infinite honour like that, which a priest offers to him by a single Mass.

Grandeur of the Priestly Power

The dignity of the priest is also estimated from the power that he has over the real and the mystic body of Jesus Christ.

With regard to the power of priests over the real body of Jesus Christ, it is of faith that, when they pronounce the words of consecration, the Incarnate Word has obliged himself to obey and to come into their hands under the sacramental species. We are struck with wonder when we hear that God obeyed the voice of Josue. The Lord obeying the voice of man and made the sun stand when he said, "Move not, O sun, towards Gabaon" ... and the sun stood still. But our wonder should be far greater when we find that in obedience to the words of his priests, HOC EST CORPUS MEUM, God himself descends on the altar, that he comes wherever they call him, and as often as they call him, and places himself in their hands, even though they should be his enemies. And after having come, he remains, entirely at their disposal; they move him as they please, from one place to another; they may, if they wish, shut him up in the tabernacle, or expose him on the altar, or carry him outside the church; they may, if they choose, eat his flesh, and give him for the food of others. "Oh, how very great is their power," says St. Lawrence Justinian, speaking of priests. "A word falls from their lips and the body of Christ is there substantially formed from the matter of bread, and the Incarnate Word, descended from heaven, is found really present on the table of the altar! Never did divine goodness give such power to the angels. The angels abide by the order of God, but the priests take him in their hands, distribute him to the faithful, and partake of him as food for themselves."

With regard to the mystic body of Christ, that is, all the faithful, the priest has the power of the keys, or the power of delivering sinners from hell, of making them worthy of paradise, and of changing them from the slaves of Satan into the children of God. And God himself is obliged to abide by the judgment of his priests, and either not to pardon or to pardon, according as they refuse or give absolution, provided the penitent is capable of it. "Such is," says St. Maximus of Turin, "this judiciary power ascribed to Peter that its decision carries with it the decision of God." The sentence of the priest precedes, and God subscribes to it, writes St. Peter Damian. Hence St. John Chrysostom thus concludes: "The Sovereign Master of the universe only follows the servant by confirming in heaven all that the latter decides upon earth."

Priests are the dispensers of the divine graces and the companions of God. "Consider the priests," says St. Ignatius, Martyr, "as the dispensers of divine graces and the associates of God." "They are," says St. Prosper, "the glory and the immovable columns of the Church; they are the doors of the eternal city, through them all reach Christ; they are the vigilant guardians to whom the Lord has confided the keys of the kingdom of heaven; they are the stewards of the king's house, to assign to each according to his good pleasure his place in the hierarchy."

Were the Redeemer to descend into a church, and sit in a confessional to administer the sacrament of penance, and a priest to sit in another confessional, Jesus would say over each penitent, "Ego te absolvo"; the priest would likewise say over each of his penitents, "Ego te absolvo" and the penitents of each would be equally absolved. How great the honour that a king would confer on a subject, whom he should empower to rescue from prison as many as he pleased! But far greater is the power that the eternal Father has given to Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ has given to his priests, to rescue from hell not only the bodies but also the souls of the faithful. "The Son," says St. John Chrysostom, "has put into the hands of the priests, all judgment; for having been, as it were, transported into heaven, they have received this divine prerogative. If a king gave to a mortal the power to release from prison all prisoners, all would pronounce such a one happy; but priests have received from God a far greater power, since the soul is more noble than the body."

See also Dignity of the Priest: Part II

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